Doctrine of God (part 8)April 11, 2010 Time: 00:36:26
I. B. 4. Omnipresence a. Analysis.
1. Attributes of God
We have been talking about the attributes of God. We have discussed divine self-existence, or aseity, and then we talked about God’s eternity, or his relationship with time. Now we want to turn to a discussion of God’s omnipresence, which is God’s relationship to space.
Let’s begin by looking at some scriptural data concerning how God relates to space. First of all, the Scripture teaches that God’s presence is everywhere. God is everywhere present. Psalm 139:7-12:
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, thou art there! If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there thy hand shall lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Let only darkness cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to thee, the night is bright as the day; for darkness is as light with thee.
Here the psalmist says that no matter where he goes, he finds God’s presence there. Whether he ascends into heaven or descends into Sheol, the realm of the dead, God is there; there is no place that God is not present.
Jeremiah 23:23-24 is another lovely verse on God’s omnipresence.
‘Am I a God at hand,’ says the LORD, ‘and not a God afar off? Can a man hide himself in secret places so that I cannot see him?’ says the LORD. ‘Do I not fill heaven and earth?’ says the LORD.
Here, again, through the prophet, the Lord says, “There is no place you can hide yourself from me. I am not just a God that is locally present here. I am also far off. I fill heaven and Earth.” There is nowhere that God’s presence does not reach.
So the first point that the Scripture teaches about God’s omnipresence is that God is everywhere present.
Secondly, the Scripture teaches that God does not dwell in a localized place. 1 Kings 8:27 – this is Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, which was thought to be the place that God’s presence would be especially evident. But Solomon says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee; how much less this house which I have built!” So even though God can be encountered there in the temple, Solomon recognizes that God doesn’t dwell in the temple. His presence isn’t confined to some locality on Earth. He says on the contrary, even the highest heaven cannot contain God, how much less this little building that I put together.
Acts 17:24 and 28a – this is Paul’s address in Athens as he stood in the Areopagus and the marketplace, with the great Parthenon behind him on the Acropolis. If you have ever been there, it is such a striking sight, as this magnificent temple to Athena towers over the city on the Acropolis, and you can just imagine Paul standing down there on the Areopagus and pointing up to this beautiful temple over his shoulder on the Acropolis, and he says in verse 24, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man” and later in verse 28, “for in him, we live and move and have our being.” Paul says that God doesn’t dwell in some temple like the Parthenon; this is not where God is located.1 Quite the contrary, he says we are located in God, in a sense. In him we live and move and have our being. We are surrounded by God’s presence. His presence is not localized in some temple or building, rather it is all around us.
So the second point that we want to make from Scripture is that God doesn’t dwell in a localized place.
Question: I see a lot of quotes about God being in all creation. Often, there is a fuzzy line between pantheism and panentheism – can you comment on this?
Answer: This is a very nice segue into discussing what omnipresence means. Although I hadn’t intended to do this, let’s distinguish it from these other two views. Pantheism is the view that everything is God, that God is the universe. So a pantheist is someone who would identify the universe with God; they are identical. God is not a transcendent being beyond the universe; instead the universe is God. Sometimes certain statements by atheistic scientists have a flavor of pantheism about them. Carl Sagan, the late astronomer, would often speak about the Cosmos (with a capital “C”) as having the attributes and character of God. For him, the Cosmos itself seemed to be an object of reverence, as almost holy and worthy of awe and worship. That would be an expression of pantheism, which identifies the world as God.
Panentheism is a different view. This is the view that the world is part of God. Typically, it would be said that the world is to God as our body is to our soul. God is like the soul of the world. So the world is God’s body, and in that sense he is not distinct from the world. The world is a part of God. So there is a part of God that is beyond the world, but nevertheless the world is still, on this view, “divinized;” it becomes part of God. This has become popular among a school of contemporary philosophy called “process theology” or “process theism,” where the world is the embodiment of God. As the world develops and unfolds, this represents God’s development and improvement and becoming better. On this view, God is not a perfect being; rather he is a being in process, and he is becoming better all the time. As we live better lives and contribute to the good of the world, we actually improve God because, as we improve the world, we are improving God. God gets “better and better every day in every way,” so to speak.
Those two views are very different from omnipresence, which is the view that God is distinct from creation, but nevertheless he is immanent in creation. Immanence is not like “imminent” with an “i,” as when we say, “Christmas is imminent” or “The second coming of Jesus is imminent,” that is, “about to happen.” This is “immanent” with an “a.” That means that God is present in the world. He is present in creation, though he is also transcendent. On the biblical doctrine of omnipresence, God is both transcendent in that he is distinct from the world (the world is not a part of God; it is not God; he transcends the world; he is not identical to the world; the world is a creature; it is a creation of God), but he is immanent as well, in that he is present in creation. We will talk in a moment about what that means, but that contrasts the notion of omnipresence with both pantheism and panentheism, which are heretical and need to be avoided.2
Question: How does this relate to God and his sustaining power?
Answer: We will talk more about that when we get to the doctrine of creation. The traditional Christian doctrine of creation is that God did not simply bring the world into being at the beginning, but he also conserves the world in being moment by moment. It would be like a flutist who plays a note on the flute, and the note continues to exist, the sound continues to exist, only so long as the musician is blowing into the flute. Were he to cease to blow, the note would disappear. In a similar way, Christian theology thinks of creation as dependent upon God moment by moment for its existence, not just for its initial coming into being. We will talk about that more later on. That would not relate directly to our concern here about how God is present in creation.
Question: About process theism, I thought that was the same thing as “open theism.” Can you give some sort of brief elaboration on those two terms?
Answer: It is great to have these terminological distinctions made clear because we do not want to accuse someone of being something, when in fact he is not! Open theism is not the same as process theism, as I just described it. Open theism is a view that is a non-traditional understanding of God’s foreknowledge and providence. The open theist denies that God knows the future, as least exhaustively. Since God does not know what is going to happen, he takes risks and gambles with the world. He creates people, hoping they will come to know him personally and be saved, but he really doesn’t know that they will. Sometimes the open theist says this still gives you a strong sense of divine providence because God is like the grand master in chess who is playing against an amateur and who can predict the exact position and piece with which he will checkmate his amateur opponent. He can do this, not because he knows what the opponent will do, but because he is just so smart that he knows that however the opponent will move, he will outmaneuver him and checkmate him in exactly the way he predicted. So the open theist wants to say that God still has a considerable degree of control over the world, but nevertheless he takes risks, and he doesn’t know what is going to happen.
But the open theist doesn’t think that the world is the body of God or is divine or is part of God. The open theist can still think of God as distinct from the world and the world as a creature dependent upon God. What it does share with process theism is the view that God is in time and that he is developing and learning new things all the time; he doesn’t have knowledge of the future. So there are points of contact with process theology, but let’s be fair to the open theists. I am not sympathetic to open theism at all – I have written extensively against it – but we shouldn’t accuse them of being things that they are not. They are not heretics in the sense of thinking that the world is divine or part of God. They are not panentheists or pantheists. An example of an open theist would be Gregory Boyd. He is a popular writer and pastor in Minnesota. Clark Pinnock has become an open theist as well. Those would be a couple of evangelical thinkers that embrace that view. Process theists would include people like Charles Hartshorne and Alfred Whitehead; and a good many people that are involved in the science and religion dialogue today have unfortunately bought into process theism. Pantheists would include Hindus and Buddhists, who think that the world is divine or is God.3
Question: Can you explain how omnipresence applies to Christ?
Answer: Insofar as Christ is divine, that is to say, is the second person of the Trinity, he must have this attribute because he possesses the fullness of the divine nature. So we cannot say that the Father is omnipresent, but the Spirit and the Son are not. Insofar as the second person of the Trinity is God, he possesses all the attributes of deity. So that means that Jesus is omnipresent. That raises some questions about the incarnation because surely Jesus was in Palestine. He was located in a particular place. At advent time we think of Jesus lying in the manger. But the Christian doctrine of creation requires that although Jesus’ human nature, his body, was locally present in the manger, or in Palestine, in his divine nature he was omnipresent and is omnipresent. This requires us to draw a distinction between the divine nature of Christ and the human nature of Christ. While the human nature of Christ is certainly spatially located, his divine nature is not. We will talk more about that when we get to the Doctrine of Christ and the doctrine of the incarnation.
As we think about the doctrine of omnipresence, there are two opposite errors that we need to avoid. First of all, we should not think of God as localized in any earthly spot. We should not think that God dwells upstairs in some building or that God is to be found in certain local places here on Earth. That is clearly contrary to the teaching of Scripture. But, equally, the opposite error is that we shouldn’t think of God as localized in heaven. We should not think that God is “out there” in heaven sitting on the throne and that he is, therefore, not present here. I have been astonished, quite frankly, at the number of Christians who do think of God in those local terms – he is in heaven someplace, and that is where he is. That also needs to be avoided. God is not spatially located, either in an earthly location or even in a heavenly location. Rather the doctrine of omnipresence is that he is everywhere present. So we want to avoid both of those mistakes.
Having said that, the Bible isn’t clear whether we should think of God as transcending space or as being everywhere throughout space. We have here a problem that is exactly analogous to the problem we encountered with divine eternity and God’s relationship to time. Remember, we saw that the Bible doesn’t clearly distinguish for us if God is eternal in the sense of transcending time, being atemporal or timeless, not having any duration or extension in the temporal dimension, but just being outside of time. Nor does it distinguish for us if God can be thought of as being everlasting throughout time – beginningless and endless throughout time. We explored these two views of divine eternity and God’s relationship with time, and I sought to defend a particular understanding of that. Just as the Bible isn’t clear about the nature of divine eternity and God’s relationship with time, so it is not clear about the nature of omnipresence and God’s relationship to space. On the one understanding, we would say that God doesn’t exist in space at all, that he transcends space and that he is not a spatial being in any way. On the other understanding we would say God does exist everywhere in space.
Traditionally, Christian theologians have not thought of God as being located in space. The Bible speaks of God in spatial terms.4 “If I descend into Sheol, you are there; if I ascend into heaven, you are there,” and so forth. God is everywhere. “In him we live and move and have our being.” But many theologians would want to say that that kind of language is metaphorical, that in fact God is completely trans-spatial; he doesn’t exist in our three-dimensional spatial or four-dimensional spacetime continuum at all.
How can we understand this? Since God is spirit, he has no body. God doesn’t have a humanoid form. He doesn’t have any kind of form. He is, if you will, a purely mental being. He would be like a soul without a body, a mind without a body. God has no body. If he is in space, he wouldn’t be in space in any kind of a local sense. He would have to be in space everywhere.
But we shouldn’t think of God as being in space in the sense of being spread out like an invisible ether throughout space. He is not like an invisible gas that is everywhere present in space. This would be incorrect for several reasons. For one, it would mean that if the universe is finite, which is perfectly possible, then God would be finite. We do not want to say that because God is infinite. More seriously, if God is spread out throughout space, like an invisible ether, that means that he is not fully present everywhere. Rather, there is only a part of God that is present here in this room – there is only a certain number of cubic meters of God that is in the room, and most of him is outside of the room. Surely that is not right; we don’t want to think that I have a certain volume of God in my glass at the supper table and a larger volume of God inside of the house. We shouldn’t think of God as being spread out like an ether throughout all of space.
God, if he is in space, would have to be fully present at every point in space. That is a very difficult notion to grasp. If God exists at every point in space, how can he be fully present at every point in space? If would seem that he would have to be related to the physical universe in a way that is analogous to the relationship of my soul, or my mind, to my body. I am a composite of a soul and a body. But my soul isn’t located in any part of my body – it is not as if my soul is in my brain or that a soul is in certain neurons. The soul is an immaterial entity which is everywhere present throughout its body and controls the body, but there aren’t pieces or parts of the soul that are in my foot or my arm. Rather the soul is everywhere fully present in the body, and one could say that God would be related to the world in a way similar to the way in which my soul or my mind is to my body.
However, this comes very close to the view of saying that the world is the body of God – that would be panentheism, and we want to avoid that. The difference would be that, on this understanding of omnipresence, the world wouldn’t be a part of God. It would be a creation of God, and God would work through it, but it isn’t the means by which God senses and knows things in the way in which my soul senses things through the physical senses of my body. My body mediates to my soul through the nerve endings sensory input of visual experiences, aural experiences, as I hear things, tactile experiences, as I touch things. It is through the nerve endings in my body that this input comes to my soul. That is why, even though the soul is distinct from the body, if the body is impaired in some way through, say, drunkenness or drugs or brain damage, the function of the soul is impaired, and you can’t think. The soul uses the body as an instrument by which it senses and acts in the world. That would not be the case for God. The world is not God’s body in that sense. God transcends the world, and he doesn’t use the world as a kind of sense organ through which he experiences and knows things.5
If we do think of God as being in the world similar to the way in which the soul is in the body, it would be that God can immediately cause things to happen in the world in the way that my soul can immediately cause things to happen in my body. If I will to lift my arm, I can, with simply mental exertion, will to lift my arm, and all of a sudden, neurons fire, muscles contract, nerve endings send stimuli, and things happen in my body. I can have immediate effects in my body through the action of the mind, or the soul. Similarly, God could make immediate things happen in the world by his exercising his mental activity. But, he would not be the world; the world would not be his body, though there would be a kind of analogy between the way the soul acts in the body and the way God can act in space.
Sometimes theologians talk about the attribute of God’s immensity. The immensity of God can be interpreted to be this sort of presence of God throughout space, whereby he is fully present at every point in space. So God is immense in the sense that he fills all of space and is immediately present at every point in space. That is one way to think about God’s omnipresence – in terms of his immensity and his immediate and full presence at every point in space.
On the other hand, perhaps if we want to avoid the misunderstandings that are engendered by thinking of God’s acting in the world in the way my soul acts in the body, we may say simply that God transcends space all together – that he isn’t in space in any sort of literal sense. Rather God is an infinite mind who is conscious of and causally active at every point in space. That could be what it means that he is omnipresent – that he is conscious of and active at every point in space. That is to say, at every point in space, he knows what is happening at that point, and he is causally active at that point, at least in sustaining the world in being. On that view, God would not be in space in any sense at all. He would be a trans-spatial being or a non-spatial being. But omnipresence means that he is conscious of and causally active at every point in space.
I am going to leave this an open question. I think we can all agree that whichever view you take, God’s omnipresence means minimally that there is no place to which God’s knowledge and power do not extend. Minimally, we can all agree on that. His knowledge and power extend to every point in space. And on that, both views at least can agree.
Question: I remember reading a theologian that said a spirit, since it is immaterial, is where it operates. And God operates throughout the universe, so God is omnipresent.
Answer: The only thing I would want to add to that would be in order to operate at every place, he needs to know what is happening at that place. It is not enough just to be causally active there, but he also needs to be aware of, or conscious of, what’s going on there. With that understanding, that does seem to capture the essence of what I was trying to express.6
Question: Regarding the transcendence of God, I see that as a close parallel to saying the whole of creation is a part of the mind of God. One of the things that science has come to, Bell’s Theorem, is that you can take particles and separate them as far as you want and they are instantaneously connected. I think that is very strong evidence of God.
Answer: Let me respond to that before you go on. What this is talking about is a theorem developed by J.S. Bell about, say, two photons that are shot in opposite directions, and if you perform a measurement on one photon, the other one immediately takes on a correlated value. This seems contradictory to the idea that there can’t be any signal that can travel faster than the speed of light because these are photons that are moving away from each other at the speed of light. So if you measure one of them, how does the other one “know” to flip to the right value, the correlated value? What this suggests is that there are relations of absolute simultaneity in the universe. This is one of the reasons that people are becoming more sympathetic to a non-Einsteinian view of relativity theory, which denied that there was absolute simultaneity in the universe. These new experiments suggest that in fact there are relations of absolute simultaneity in the universe. That has importance for the doctrine of divine eternity because then you could have a kind of absolute time frame in which God exists and knows and acts in the universe.
But I do not know what you mean when you say that it means that creation is a part of the mind of God. To me, that makes it sound as if the world is sort of like my dreams. When I have a dream, I create a whole mental world that I populate with unreal persons or unreal events, and they are just mental, just part of my mind, but they are not real. It seems to me that the doctrine of creation, especially for the Hebrew, is that the material world is a real thing that is different from God. It is not just in his mind; the material world is a real, extra-mental reality that is physical, and it is good. We should not do anything to depreciate the value of the physical in favor of the mental.
Followup: I do not see that much difference between the mental and the physical. As long as God can sustain any thought, so he can create a permanent thought within him. So there really isn’t much difference.
Answer: So you are an idealist, which says that basically everything that exists are ideas.
Followup: In a certain sense. You can have a lot of concepts; the only ones that can lead us to more knowledge towards God are fruitful. In Acts where Paul was talking, “we all live and breathe within God,” I would think God is breathing his spirit into us, and I think he is talking that we live within the spirit that God put in us.
Answer: Look at the context, though, of Paul’s address. He is contrasting the Athenians’ belief that God (or the goddess) lives in this temple that has been built. And he says God doesn’t dwell in temples that are made by human hands; rather, in him we live and move and have our being. I think he is making a contrast between these local, pagan deities, that were thought to live in specific places, and God, who is immense in the sense that he fills all of space, so that we live and move and have our being in him. This is either that God transcends space but he operates at every point in space, or else he is immense in the sense that he is everywhere present throughout space in the way my soul is everywhere present throughout my body, rather than confined to a certain part of my cerebral cortex.
Question: It is common for the church to teach, or lead people to think, that in hell, God is not present. I am not sure if that is correct, because certainly God’s knowledge and power can extend there. Is that an incorrect teaching?
Answer: What I would want to do is to try to re-interpret what people mean when they say that God isn’t present in hell because clearly in the way we described it, he is present in hell. He knows what is happening there, and he is causally active there, sustaining it in being. What would it mean? When Scripture says that people are excluded from the presence of the Lord and the glory of his might, I think it is talking about a relational rupture. God is not present to the people in hell in a personal, relational sense. It is in that sense that they don’t have an experience of the presence of God. But certainly he is there cognitively and causally, though there is no relationship with God, and in that sense people in hell experience the utter absence of God. I would interpret it as a relational rupture.7
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